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"Continental Drift - Colliding Continents, Converging Cultures"


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Preface by
John F. Dewey, FRS. FGS

Foreword by

Prof. Sherban Veliciu

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Chapter 4 (PDF Format)


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Book Details

ISBN # - 0750306866
Author - Constantin Roman
Publisher - Institute of Physics
Year - June 1, 2000


On reading "Continental Drift", it is perhaps ironic to consider the twists and turns of Constantin Roman's career, where he was led to excel in domains in which, at the beginning, he had not enjoyed, to put it mildly, an auspicious start. Constantin and I were contemporaries at the University of Bucharest, where we both read Geophysics. At that time, I remember vividly, Constantin confided in me that when he was 16 he "was not brilliant at either Geology or Physics", only to end up reading for an MA in Geophysics. Furthermore, as a University student, it was immediately apparent that Constantin Roman's "forte" were most decidedly neither Tectonics, nor indeed Seismology! Yet at Cambridge, the topic in which he made his mark was "Seismo-tectonics". This success is undoubtedly qualified by two traits of character acknowledged by his professors in Romania, namely perseverance and enthusiasm. To these I should add a third one, which is crucial in our profession, that is imagination, which Constantin put to good use in interpreting his research data and coming with unique solutions, often against all odds.

Apart from an introductory chapter about his Romanian roots ("The DNA signature") and the period spent in Newcastle and Paris, in 1968-1969, this is a book of recollections of the author's time at Cambridge, between 1969 and 1973, where he was Research Scholar at Peterhouse. He was lucky to work on Plate Tectonics, when this subject was in its infancy, as his Supervisor and Mentor, Sir Edward Bullard led him to follow a path, where each researcher was conspicuous and his scientific inroads significant. Now this same road is rather well trodden by a mass of individuals vying for prominence.

At Cambridge, this Romanian student was busy finding a solution to the occurrence of seismicity in the Carpathians and the central Asia, which eventually led to a new definition of lithospheric plates. This new tectonic solution to the Continental crust of Eurasia represented an early step in the development of Plate Tectonics theory and is unique in several ways:

First and foremost there is its scientific interest in the recognition of the existence of a new type of lithospheric plate - the "non-rigid plate" or "buffer plate", published in various scientific journals. Several newly defined "buffer plates" were carved out of large tracts of Continental crust of Eurasia, in particular the areas behind the Himalayas - Tibet and Sinkiang. Furthermore, the unexpected discovery of a then yet unknown piece of oceanic lithosphere, sinking vertically under the Continental Crust of the Carpathians, represented a breakthrough in the reconstruction of the huge jigsaw puzzle of Tethys. The first results published in "Nature", the "Geophysical Journal" and the "New Scientist" remain classics of the specialist literature. Although censored in Ceausescu's Romania (o, yes, even Science was emasculated for political reasons, as Roman belonged to the Diaspora) Constantin Roman's work has endured the test of time and has kept the same topicality and freshness now, as it had at the time of its conception. For this obvious reason, twenty-five years on, it was my privilege, as Scientific Director of the Romanian Geological Survey and an Editor of the Romanian Journal of Geophysics, to publish "in extenso" Constantin Roman's PhD dissertation, "Seismotectonics of the Carpathians and the Central Asia" (Romanian Journal of Geophysics, vol. 18, 196 pp., Bucharest, 1998).

Constantin Roman's research was carried out at Cambridge under two remarkable scientists of world repute: first under Dan McKenzie and then under Sir Edward Bullard, himself remembered for the first-ever mathematical model of the Atlantic reconstruction, known as "the Bullard Fit". As a pupil of Bullard, Roman's name falls within a direct line of distinguished scientists of the Cambridge School of Physics, through Thompson, Rutherford and Cavendish, all the way to Sir Isaac Newton. By publishing today in Romania Constantin Roman's thesis, we acknowledge, albeit belatedly, the enduring character of this pioneering contribution to Alpine Plate Tectonics. For these very reasons we welcome as a timely meeting of minds the parallel publication in England, by the Institute of Physics Publishers, of "Continental Drift", as an anecdotal history of the genesis of this same research. This makes for a perfect symmetry, as the two publications in England and Romania complement each other.

The mid 1960's early 1970's, which is the period of these memoirs, were the early, but heady days when Vine and Matthews evolved the concept of "sea-floor spreading" and the Canadian Tuzo Wilson, then a visiting Professor at Cambridge, devised the dynamics of "transform faults". It caused a frenzy of research which has since transformed Geology, in a manner which has not been done before, or since.

On turning the pages of this story, the reader will gradually uncover the tensile forces beneath the real world of great scientists, with their frailties and their petty skirmishes, all leading to a climax which could not have been anticipated. This forms the backdrop to "The rat race" chapter, a closely run contest, punctuated by youthful exuberance. The enthusiasm paid off, as before the race was over, Constantin Roman lived through the beguiling excitement of beating a group of researchers, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to the answer to one of the great enigmas of Earth Sciences - the seismicity of Central Asia. Cocooned in his Cambridge microcosm and obsessed by his research, Roman was completely oblivious of a Trans-Atlantic team from MIT, working for years on the same problem as himself and gathering a wealth of information, which was about to be published. This sudden realisation came as a shock, as the very object of the hard-won evidence, which made the core of his Cambridge doctorate, was put in jeopardy, had the American colleagues published first their results.

This is a unique instance when the reader could witness from within the researcher's camp, his battles, trials and final triumphs. During the fray, many doubts were cast, which inevitably confront every scientist. That is why, whilst in the throes of these struggles to the solution of a crucial scientific problem, one is never sure whether the pivotal new idea will be easily accepted by the geological profession, known more for its conservatism, than for its innovative spirit, or iconoclasm. Therefore, Constantin found it prudent to field these new ideas and test them against new audiences in a series of lectures, delivered as a guest speaker of British and Continental universities, in order to get their recognition, before the dissertation was finished.

Somewhere, in the remotest corners of Academic etiquette there is an unwritten rule. This is the exclusivity of a field of research, claimed by one's peers, which is generally observed by scholars, within certain limits. It is in fact this very code of practice, which had been broken, whilst this story was unfolding. Once the ensuing "rat race" was under way, there was no other alternative but to go out and defend one's work, the paternity of which had to be preserved at all costs. This is how original concepts are born and what real Science is all about - a drama often coloured by extraordinary ethos and raw feeling. The arguments, as they turned out to be, at the outset, were often more twisted and the thinking of those behind them was more fractious, than first anticipated. Indeed, as we know too well from the world of Science, it is not uncommon for many a distinguished predecessor, or Nobel Prize winner at Cambridge and elsewhere to live through identical crises.

Beyond the skirmishes of Science, or Scientists, "Continental Drift" is a book about universal values of Freedom, Humanity, Beauty and, above all, of "joie de vivre", a song to the environment, which inspires research and where enduring ideas are created. These are the impressions that nurtured this author's imagination and which form the very essence of the story, an inter-reaction without which this work would not have been possible. They are the impact which Western Europe and England in particular, had upon a fresh graduate from behind the Iron Curtain. On arriving in Newcastle, Constantin was youthfully unconcerned for having only five guineas in his pocket. Ironically his travel ticket was paid for through a "NATO" grant, a source of moneys which he had to keep secret from the Romanian authorities, lest his permission to travel to England might be withdrawn ("NATO Secret"). Under Ceausescu, Constantin Roman was allowed out of Romania, to deliver his scientific paper, only after the conference had ended (!), a classical ploy in the armoury of communist bureaucracy in their attempt to discourage contacts with the outside world, other than at official level. Worse still was to come, as a high ranking Romanian official and otherwise undercover agent for the Secret Services, tried to curtail Roman's attempt at doing a PhD in the West. He labelled it a "political option" (sic) and tried to discourage such application with the bogus spectre of ending this exercise "at best, as a mere waiter in a restaurant!". Undaunted by such unsolicited prophecy, Constantin broadened his academic contacts and "packed in the sights", as if there was no tomorrow. On the slow journey home, to reintegrate the Communist confines of his country, like any "good Romanian", he stopped over in Paris, "to see the Eiffel Tower"… In retrospect, I suspect, this move was only a sub-conscious excuse to meet Professor Thellier, a distinguished scientist of world repute and Head of the Institut de Physique Du Globe. Thellier offered Roman a place for a doctorate in Archaeomagnetism, but this was not to be, as the young Romanian arrived in France on 1st May 1968, only days before the Paris student riots plunged France in total chaos. With French Academia in disarray, Roman's plans to study under Thellier came to nothing and soon he found myself stranded without moneys and without the possibility of returning to Romania, as his re-entry visa expired ("Paris Student Riots"). Some three months out on a limb, he was rescued from Paris by Professor Kenneth Creer's offer of a summer visiting studentship at the School of Physics, in Newcastle. Here Constantin applied for and obtained a Research Scholarship from Peterhouse, the oldest Cambridge College, where he arrived in the autumn of 1969. Ironically, like Paris, Cambridge too was in turmoil, consumed by the "Garden House riots" and Germaine Greer's "Female Eunuch". This was only a feeble answer to and a copy-cat version of the Paris riots, the preceding year, a kind of Guy Fawkes "redivivus", with a lot of fireworks. It was the time when Cambridge students set the "Garden House Hotel" on fire and caused the Home Secretary to run for his life. Having been brought up in a dictatorship, where any form of dissent was instantly crushed, this Romanian student was utterly disconcerted to find himself parachuted, a non-plussed witness, in the middle of such unexpected events.

The contrast of cultures between East and West, between the author's preconceived, romantic and romanticised ideals of the West and the real life, was always exhilarating, as he was led through encounters with eminent contemporaries in the world of Arts, Science and Politics ("Lotus-eater"). The people, the architecture and the gardens that surrounded him in his student days and which formed a backdrop to his work, are remembered with a great deal of emotion and lyricism. If this scene is punctuated by irony and may be mixed with a good measure of Boswell-like frankness, I hope that the reader will forgive this author, as the intention was to present an unadulterated picture, as he saw it at that particular time. Opinions of those immature but blissful years are sometimes fraught with a youthful arrogance and therefore, those of us who figure in these pages must read them in a compassionate spirit. Such emotive opinions could not be better expressed than in the words of Marie, Princess of Great Britain and Queen of Romania:

"Once I was a stranger to this people; now I am one of them, and, because I came from so far, better was I able to see them with their good qualities and with their defects" ("My Country", Hodder & Stoughton, 1916).

In the above context it is nevertheless true that Constantin Roman's thinking, whilst it flourished in the stimulating Cambridge environment, which represents the pinnacle of British Academia, would not have been possible without the broad culture which he received from Romania. This confluence is reflected in the very spirit of "Continental Drift". For, as we proceed, we must remember that this is not a textbook of popular science on the History of Plate Tectonics, but a series of personal impressions, or "cameos", which some day might complement such History of Science.

As we turn the pages of this narrative, it is apparent that Constantin Roman's singular road to Utopia was littered with disappointments and setbacks, as the darker side of human imperfections was gradually uncovered. However these "Memoirs" are not intended as an exhaustive inventory of hardships, but rather as a Quixotic refusal in accepting them. This uncompromising stance is best summed up in the words of Thomas Mann:

"Finally, here, on Earth, there is only one problem left: how to get up! How to get up and go, break the chrysalis to become butterfly"

On reading the book one may wish to mellow the edges, but one feels reluctant to do so, for fear of emasculating the complete and utter exhilaration with which such impressions were first recorded. They are an indispensable component of this narrative, which will benefit the reader.

Having considered the above caveats, one may well ask:

Would "Continental Drift" be a "looking glass" wherein one could see ourselves with the candid and unforgiving eye of the Continental "drifting" within our midst?

Or, maybe, the resonance box of a musical instrument, which may amplify the "drift" of this Continental author?

Or, would it rather be a History of Science book, defining the drift of Continents, or the beginnings of Plate Tectonics theory?

At a first glance all these three aspects may appear diverse, yet they have perfectly complementary and harmonious meanings, which should account for the triple entendre of the very title of "Continental Drift".

Professor Sherban VELICIU

University of Bucharest ,
Scientific Director, Geological Survey of Romania
Vice-Chairman Editorial Board, Romanian Journal of Geophysics


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